Arsenal are predators and Super Villain Mikel Arteta sets the tone
When I saw Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal in person for the first time I was surprised by his manic touchline behaviour. He spends matches skipping, flinging, spinning and generally looking like a one-man attempt to start a Tik Tok dance craze.
Such mania and wanton disregard for the sacred limits of the technical area were unexpected given the Arteta you see in interviews, a man so measured and monotone he could be his own deepfake.
Everyone has cottoned on to Arteta’s histrionics now. His crackle matches his team's, and both were at their best during Sunday’s 3-2 victory over Manchester United.
All top coaches have an edge. The barely concealed rage of Jürgen Klopp, the sneering disdain of Jose Mourinho, the sense that any Manchester City player in the wrong pitch sub-quadrant during pressing trigger B11 (phase three) has profoundly wounded Pep Guardiola.
Arteta’s occasionally risible antics fit this tradition and bring some bite to a team that has often seemed over-burdened by nice young boys. Now they are playing like predators and their manager is setting the tone from the border of the pitch. He was booked in the first half on Sunday for an ostentatious sprinting protest after a Luke Shaw foul.
“Were you a bit too intense?” asked Sky’s Geoff Shreeves afterwards. “Can you complain about your yellow card that you received?”
“I don’t think so,” said Arteta. The suppression of a smile told you that he knows exactly what he is doing, he is an intentional lightning rod. “My responsibility ...,” he says at one point during Arsenal’s All Or Nothing Amazon series, “I take the s---”.
Arteta when asked about his yellow card : “You can always get better in life innit” 😭 pic.twitter.com/ujQvN3achP
— HM (@Arsenal_DB10) January 22, 2023
Negative coverage dries up when a team is doing well, but footballers often find a way to disgrace themselves anyway, even when in good form. Yet it is tough to remember much sniffy coverage of Arsenal’s players this season. It helps that they come across as a largely likeable bunch.
Conversely, Arteta’s touchline mannerisms are powering a cottage industry of outrage. We can all agree that haranguing officials sets a poor example, and that the erosion of standards in public behaviour should be resisted. But the rounding on Arteta has occasionally suggested he is the only guilty party. The vast majority of managers would wince at footage of their angriest conversations with fourth officials. It is a problem which will only be solved with punishments more painful than meaningless bookings.
Beyond his misdirected aggression it is tough to pinpoint exactly what Arteta does which is so offensive. Pointing, shouting, running, leaving the area indicated by the white dotted lines. Potentially irritating, and understandably not to everyone’s taste. But worthy of condemnation, a cracking down, some undercooked moral panic? Hardly.
Arteta is a dedicated manager showing his team how much they need to care. All Or Nothing, the rare example of the helpful behind the scenes documentary, raised his standing among some previously sceptical Arsenal fans. Some of his team-talks in particular do not pass the cringe test. During one he draws a cartoon heart and brain holding hands on a whiteboard, which may not motivate most of us for a long day at the coalface/laptop. But it is clearly working for his players and the proof is in the points tally.
You may find his most extravagant antics unsavoury and they certainly seem to upset the caucus of Proper Football Men. But plenty of fans long for such animation and respond to a bit of brashness. What would once would be seen as childish outbursts now signal passion, desire, meaning, even. This stuff plays better on social media than the impassive staring of more measured coaches. Like it or not, that matters now.
Arteta is the perfect pantomime villain and if that sounds too harsh remember that, deep down, everyone likes a pantomime villain. No one comes out of a theatre in December incensed and readying death threats for Captain Hook. Arteta is playing the part, and this season, faultlessly.